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PHOTOS: Neighbors in the Fan socialize at a safe distance during weekly ‘#PorchSolidarity Parties’

Neighbors in the Fan have found a creative way to socialize during this time of social distancing, and do it from the comfort – and safe distance – of their own porches. Reader Rachel Scott Everett and her husband Brian Gibson organize regular porch gatherings to catch up with neighbors over drinks, music, and conversation.

RVAHub Staff

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Neighbors in the Fan have found a creative way to socialize during this time of social distancing, and do it from the comfort – and safe distance – of their own porches. Reader Rachel Scott Everett and her husband Brian Gibson organize regular porch gatherings to catch up with neighbors over drinks, music, and conversation.

“While the photos may appear fun and carefree, all of us are currently facing different challenges regarding health, family, loss of work, financial strain, etc.,” Rachel said in an email to RVAHub. “This time offers everyone an hour to come out on their respective porches (or stoop or front yard) and (re)connect in solidarity – possibly with neighbors they may not have seen or met before.”

She says it’s an easy and fun way to “keep our spirits up.”

We hope these photos brighten your day as much as they did ours.

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Crime

Activists say bill ending police stops for pot odor is ‘small step’ for marginalized communities

The state Senate approved a bill Friday that would prohibit search and seizures based solely on the odor of marijuana. Activists say this is a small step toward ending adverse enforcement against marginalized communities.

Capital News Service

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By Andrew Ringle

The state Senate approved a bill Friday that would prohibit search and seizures based solely on the odor of marijuana. Activists say this is a small step toward ending adverse enforcement against marginalized communities.

Senate Bill 5029, introduced by Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, passed with a 21-15 vote.

Chelsea Higgs Wise, executive director of Marijuana Justice, a nonprofit pushing for the statewide legalization of marijuana, said her group is excited to see the bill move forward.

“This is a small but important step to decriminalizing Black and brown bodies of being targeted by this longtime policing tool, which was really created by politicizing the war on drugs,” Higgs Wise said.

Black people are more than three times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in Virginia compared to white people, according to 2018 data from the ACLU. Even after marijuana was decriminalized in July, Higgs Wise said police stops initiated on the smell of marijuana continue to adversely affect minority groups.

“The odor of marijuana is something that our undocumented community is anxious about because it’s life or death and separation from their families,” Higgs Wise said.

Higgs Wise said there is still “a long way to go” before demands for full marijuana legalization are met, but right now she wants legislators to focus on ending the enforcement of remaining marijuana-related penalties.

Marijuana decriminalization legislation approved by the General Assembly earlier this year went into effect in July. Possession of up to an ounce of marijuana results in a $25 civil penalty, reduced from a $500 criminal fine and 30 days in jail for having up to half an ounce.

Higgs Wise said true reform goes further; clearing records, releasing people jailed for marijuana offenses and eliminating the $25 fine.

“All of that has to stop to meet the full demand of legalization and fully, truly decriminalizing marijuana and Black and brown bodies in the eyes of the police,” Higgs Wise said.

Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police Executive Director Dana Schrad said the organization opposes the bill.

“Enacting this type of legislation allows and promotes smoking of marijuana while operating a motor vehicle, which is a fundamental disregard for maintaining a safe driving environment for motorists,” Schrad said in an email.

Other amendments in the bill reduce certain traffic violations from primary to secondary offenses, which Schrad said could make it difficult for officers to issue citations on the road and creates risks for other drivers.

The bill, and another in the House, reduce other traffic penalties from primary to secondary offenses, such as driving with tinted windows or without a light illuminating the vehicle’s license plate.

Claire Gastañaga, executive director of ACLU Virginia, said police have “gotten comfortable” with using the smell of marijuana as a pretext to stop and frisk.

“Occasionally, they’ll find evidence doing that of some other criminal activity, but many times they don’t,” Gastañaga said. “As a consequence, it provides an excuse for essentially over-policing people who have done nothing wrong.”

Gastañaga said the end of the overcriminalization of Black and brown people will come after legislators legalize marijuana and commit to reinvesting equitably in those communities. A resolution approved by the General Assembly earlier in the year directed the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission to study and make recommendations for how the commonwealth should legalize marijuana by 2022.

Gastañaga said SB 5029 sends a strong message to the police and the public.

“This would take [away] that pretextual tool for police stopping people on the street, or for demanding to search a vehicle,” Gastañaga said.

The bill needs approval from the House of Delegates and a signature from Gov. Ralph Northam before it can become law, which would take effect four months after the special session adjourns.

House Bill 5058 similarly aims to end police searches based on the odor of marijuana. The bill, introduced by Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, reported Wednesday from the House Courts of Justice committee by a vote of 13-7.

“A disproportionate number of people pulled over for minor traffic offenses tend to be people of color,” Hope said during the committee meeting on Wednesday. “This is a contributor to the higher incarceration rate among minorities.”

Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano said during Wednesday’s meeting that when people feel they are being targeted by the police, they’re less likely to report crimes or act as witnesses in prosecutions. He said ending such traffic stops is necessary to reform the criminal justice system and make communities safer.

“Reforming our criminal justice system means bringing back legitimacy to it,” Descano said.

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Downtown

Bill to establish mental health alert system reports out of House committee

A bill that could reshape how law enforcement responds when someone is experiencing a mental health crisis reported out of the House Public Safety Committee on Tuesday by a vote of 13-9.

Capital News Service

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By Andrew Ringle

A bill that could reshape how law enforcement responds when someone is experiencing a mental health crisis reported out of the House Public Safety Committee on Tuesday by a vote of 13-9.

House Bill 5043, introduced by Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, would create teams of mental health service providers, peer recovery specialists and law enforcement to help individuals in a crisis situation. Formally dubbed the mental health awareness response and community understanding services, or MARCUS, alert system, the proposal is in response to ongoing demands of protesters in Richmond.

The proposed system is named after Marcus-David Peters, a 24-year-old high school biology teacher and Virginia Commonwealth University alumnus who was shot and killed by a Richmond Police officer in 2018 while unarmed and experiencing a mental health crisis.

“Out of that, his family, a wealth and host of community advocates and stakeholders came together and really started developing what’s known as the MARCUS alert system, which this bill hopefully will create,” Bourne said during the virtual committee meeting.

The bill would require the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and the Department of Criminal Justice Services to work together to create evidence-based training programs for the care teams so that they know how, Bourne said, “to effectively address, mitigate and de-escalate these situations.”

Bourne hopes the law will ensure that people who are experiencing mental health crises are met with the appropriate resources “and not just being locked up.”

“A mental health professional is going to absolutely take the lead in these situations,” Bourne said. “In lots of cases, the mere presence or sight of a uniform or police vehicle can further exacerbate or further amplify the mental health crisis.”

Princess Blanding, sister of Peters, commended Bourne and his team for spearheading the bill’s progress in the House. She called today’s committee meeting a partial victory, adding “it’s not done yet.”

“We’re very thankful for the work that Del. Jeff Bourne has been doing, and it’s not over,” Blanding said. “He knows he still has a lot of work ahead of him, and he’s up for it. He’s up for that fight.”

During the meeting, Blanding urged the delegates to support the bill and said her brother “absolutely deserved help, not death” on the day of his fatal shooting.

“When a person’s kidneys stop functioning properly, they receive dialysis if needed,” Blanding said. “When a person’s heart stops functioning properly, they receive bypass surgery if needed. But the brain is the only major organ that, when it stops functioning properly, we demonize, we incarcerate, and in the case of so many Black people, death is the final answer.”

Blanding has spoken at multiple demonstrations in Richmond since protests sparked by the death of George Floyd began in late May, demanding the city fully fund the alert system as well as establish a civilian review board to investigate allegations of police misconduct.

Citing the personal experience of a family member, Del. Carrie Coyner, R-Chesterfield, expressed concern for situations when a victim is endangered by someone experiencing a mental health crisis. She said she supports Bourne’s bill “in concept” but struggles with it from a legal perspective regarding who would respond first in a situation when someone might be harmed.

Bourne said law enforcement have “an absolute, overarching duty to protect people,” and that protection of any victims would necessitate police to respond first, but the mental health team would also be there to address the crisis. Coyner ultimately voted against the bill.

Republican delegates expressed concern over how to fund a statewide system, which will be determined when the bill is before the House Appropriations Committee.

“I’d like for us to think about what we could do to spend this money within our police departments to have somebody there with them that has the ability to be plainclothed and to do this, versus trying to organize different people from different parts,” said Del. Matt Fariss, R-Rustburg.

Bruce Cruser, executive director of Mental Health America of Virginia, spoke during the committee meeting. He said although his organization was not involved with putting forward the legislation, he “fully supports” the goals listed in the bill.

“I think this is an incredible, significant step forward in really addressing the mental health needs of our community,” Cruser said.

Senate Bill 5038, introduced by Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Woodbridge, also seeks to establish a similar alert system. It has been rereferred to the Senate Finance and Appropriations committee.

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Hills & Heights

New CARITAS Center is helping change the way Richmond thinks about affordable housing

This month, an old tobacco manufacturing plant is becoming a home. Richmond area volunteers and experts are making beds, cleaning floors, and more inside the future home of the CARITAS Center. As a part of the nonprofit’s plan for the space, 47 sober living apartments will welcome men and women transitioning from a crisis and into a stable, sober life.

RVAHub Staff

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This month, an old tobacco manufacturing plant is becoming a home. Richmond area volunteers and experts are making beds, cleaning floors, and more inside the future home of the CARITAS Center. As a part of the nonprofit’s plan for the space, 47 sober living apartments will welcome men and women transitioning from a crisis and into a stable, sober life.

This is important for a few reasons, according to the nonprofit.

Right now, half a million Americans are homeless. There is only enough affordable housing available for 25% of that population. Experts suggest that number has the potential to swell up to 45 percent before the year is over as a result of widespread unemployment amid the global pandemic.

Additionally, recent data from law enforcement agencies in Richmond, Chesterfield, Hanover and Henrico shows a nearly 60% increase in overdose cases when comparing the first six months of 2019 to the same period this year. Nationally, more than 35 states have reported increases in opioid-related mortality since the pandemic began, according to the American Medical Association (AMA). Reduced access to treatment and recovery services are cited among the reasons for this surge.

Affordable housing can help. People who suffer some substance use disorder make up 64% the homeless population, according to NCH. An affordable and supportive housing community is one of the most important factors to successfully reducing relapse rates.

Richmond-based nonprofit CARITAS has been working to fight the intertwined issues of homelessness and addiction since 1987. Last year alone, the organization served more than 4,000 people and provided 80,720 nights of shelter across its four programs. The addition of a sober living community to its family of programs is an exciting way for the organization to continue innovatively solving some of our country’s most challenging issues.

The nonprofit worked with a local designer Flourish Spaces to bring the concept to life. Every aspect of successful recovery housing and shelter environments have been infused into the final designs. The Flourish Spaces team also took cues from “residential and hospitality spaces as a jumping off point.”

“We didn’t want it to feel institutional,” owner Stevie McFadden said. “We also didn’t want it to feel traditional–there is nothing traditional about this organization. It is innovative.”

When completed, the 150,000 square foot building will feature:

  • CARITAS: The organization’s administrative offices will be centralized at this site.

  • The Healing Place for Women: A substance use recovery program available to low-income women in the region, a sister program to the agency’s current program The Healing Place for Men.

  • 47-Sober Living Apartments: For graduate’s transitioning and for qualifying community members.

  • Furniture Bank: A social enterprise accepting furniture donations and refurbishing them for sale or donation to low-income households.

  • Emergency Shelter: This new facility will replace the mobile, congregation-based model that has operated in the Richmond region for more than 30 years.

  • CARITAS Works: A workforce development program for men and women facing significant barriers to employment.

 

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